On a foggy summer night, eleven people — ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter — depart Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs — the painter — and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family. With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers’ intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work?
After alluding to it a bit in my Sunday post, I decided that today I want write a little bit more about my feelings on Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, a book I really enjoyed right up until the ending pretty much wrecked it for me.
Fair warning, this post is going to talk about the ending of Before the Fall – including the reason for the plane crash – in some detail. If you don’t like spoilers, just stop reading now!
Ok, with that out of the way, some context… I got started thinking about the idea of toxic masculinity in fiction after reading a post from Jenny (Reading the End) about male violence in The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan. The post is so full of intelligent rage that I want you to just go read the whole thing. But here are a couple parts in particular that are relevant (bold emphasis mine):
The helpless anger that women live with every day because that’s the price of admission for us to live in this world, and what else? Because if there’s nothing else — if it’s just another man who decided to hurt people because he couldn’t figure out what to do with his feelings — then don’t come asking me to understand his motives for doing violence. I understood already and I decided it wasn’t enough. …
I am fed up with being asked to imaginatively identify with the men who commit violence while the barest of lip service is paid to the interiority of the women in their orbit. You know how sometimes there are tropes that have lasted so long and been so damaging that you kinda have to retire them for a while? Like how we just need to place a ten-year moratorium on killing TV lesbians? I’d like a break from the glass-shattering fury that consumes my heart every time I read any iteration of the worst story in the whole world, i.e., Once upon a time, a man turned to violence because a woman he wanted to fuck wouldn’t fuck him.
With that for context, on to the book!
For the most part, I loved the way that Before the Fall didn’t feel like a thriller or a mystery, even though it’s marketed that way. The central mystery of the book — why did the plane crash? — feels secondary to exploring the stories of the victims in the crash. And for the most part, it isn’t really much of a mystery to solve — the crash investigators do their work, but “solving” the crash just comes down to finding the flight recorder and listening to the tape which basically explains what happened. The book is very much about characters and the ways in which we interact with each other.
But that’s precisely why the ending is so unsatisfying. The story is all about complex characters, but the person who actually crashed the plane was so predictably bad, it just felt like a cop-out. The flight recorder reveals the plane was taken down deliberately by the co-pilot, a man who tricked his way on to the flight so he could harass the flight attendant. She broke up with him earlier because he was abusive and unpredictable, but he just wouldn’t accept no. He brought the plane down deliberately in his rage over rejection from a beautiful woman.
And as Jenny said… that’s the worst story in the world: Once upon a time, a man turned to violence because a woman he wanted to fuck wouldn’t fuck him.
Certainly, I don’t think the book is suggesting that the co-pilot’s rage is an excuse for his actions, or even a reason to emphasize with him. But it’s also just so incredibly boring. In a world where convicted rapists are serving fewer than six months in jail and men repeatedly perpetrate mass shootings, another story where another man — for whatever reason — chooses violence and rage in a moment of frustration just left me feeling disappointed and annoyed.
That story is boring. That story is common. And that conclusion doesn’t serve the complexity and interest in creative storytelling that’s so wonderful in the rest of the book.